Editor's note: This story was originally published in 2022. We've republished it in 2023 because Isaac Caruso's picture book "Sam & Sara" is now complete and available for purchase. Spoiler: Caruso has decided to publish a list of locations for each of the murals, which includes one painted in Tucson.
Isaac Caruso is writing a book.
The illustrations? Murals across Arizona.
“It’s a 50-page children’s book illustrated with murals across Arizona and they all tell one cohesive story,” the Phoenix-based muralist says.
Caruso finished writing the story, dubbed “Sam & Sara,” in 2019 while in Tucson completing a mural at the Palo Verde pool. With the story complete, he set off to create coinciding murals across the state.
In the end, he’ll photograph the murals, which for now includes at least four in Southern Arizona, and compile them into a physical book. He hopes to finish the project by the end of the year.
“This is my 50-page love letter to my home state,” he says.
The origins of "Sam & Sara"
The idea first popped into Caruso’s head when he was a sophomore in design school and his teacher asked students to illustrate a story graphically.
“All the art I had done at that point could be looped into a narrative and I thought, ‘How cool would it be to do that with murals?’” says Caruso, who became interested in graffiti around age 13 and knew by 19 that he wanted to be an artist. “Ten years later, here I am.”
He looks at the book as a community service, but it’s also an ode to Arizona.
“I think, as a whole, this state has a lot of personality and I wanted to explore it,” he says.
The book itself is a bit autobiographical, Caruso says. A gifted nontraditional learner himself who found that the school system wasn't made for people like him, Caruso created “Sam & Sara” as a way to celebrate nontraditional learning.
The book tells the whimsical story of a girl, who potentially has attention deficit disorder and is described as a daydreamer. One day, she blinks into her imagination, where she decides to stay.
“It’s meant to kind of underscore how useful and valuable and beautiful that type of thinking is,” Caruso says.
The book is dubbed a children’s book because of the way the story is told, but Caruso hopes it’s something that everyone can enjoy.
While traveling through the state, Caruso has been creating the murals, editing videos and exploring typography, calligraphy and graphic design.
“I’m kinda able to use all of my creative outlets with this project,” he says.
Of course, he also wrote the story himself — the first thing he’s ever really written.
“I definitely consider myself an artist more than a writer, but I guess I can call myself a writer now.”
An exploration of Arizona
Instead of painting the murals in only one city, Caruso decided to hop in a van — his dog in tow — and illustrate “Sam & Sara” all over the state.
“I really wanted to see more of the state, and, for example, I know Phoenix — born and raised there. I was living in Tucson and I like Tucson,” he says. “But I didn’t feel putting (the whole project) in Tucson would tell enough of the story.”
“I want people to have an excuse to see the state,” he says, adding that it could be a fun summer project for someone to hit the road and explore the book in real life.
Caruso has so far completed 29 of the 50 “Sam & Sara” murals in Flagstaff, Tempe, Ajo, Sierra Vista, Sahuarita, Tubac, among others. Patagonia and Rio Rico are on the way.
Missing from the list? Tucson.
Caruso is actively looking for more space and more cities to add to the list of “Sam & Sara” illustrations. If you have a public-facing wall that you’d like to be beautified with a mural for the book, reach out to Caruso. The piece would be created for free, in exchange for the space.
For now, the locations of the existing murals are kept secret as a way to encourage travelers to “have an adventure of their own” while exploring Arizona towns on their mural hunt, Caruso says.
“They might talk to locals or stop to eat at a restaurant, and hopefully will be more engaged with the towns,” Caruso says of the murals that are all highly visible and public-facing.
But he's already spilled the beans on the Sierra Vista mural, so here's that location to get you started: It's located in the children's section of the Sierra Vista Public Library, 2600 E. Tacoma St., and the mural is the first page of the book.